5 Theories To Explain the Movie The Ritual

The movie the Ritual is a character study of a personal tragedy and one person's attempts at overcoming this terrible trauma. IMDB
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The movie, The Ritual, is basically the Blair Witch Project… but good. The ritual doesn’t subject us to any handheld craziness. And it doesn’t keep the story vague or completely unexplained like Blair Witch Project. So there’s that. But it is a rip roaring scare. And if you think horror movies, no matter how smart, or interesting, aren’t your think, then you probably just need to head over here instead. But trust me when I say, this is a fantastic mind job of a horror flick. It’s worth your time, and I had a ton of fun with it.

But heck, maybe you haven’t heard of it? Well, then, you are welcome. This thrilling horror movie is my gift to you. GO MOVIE, FLY TO THIS RANDOM WEB READER! The high level 411 of The Ritual is basically, that a group of guys planning on a hiking trip, have a tragic accident occur and one of their friends dies. Then jump to the trip, sans a member, in the woods of northern Sweden, and disaster strikes. Again. And again. And more and more horrifyingly again. Personally, I prefer my horror with a dose of ambiance, like The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. But do you want to know what The Ritual is MOST like in my mind? The Signal. Secret tip? The Signal was directed and written by David Bruckner… who, also directed the Ritual. So, if you got into The Signal, and the mindjobness there? Yeah, you’ll get into this too.

Alright, enough of that, queue the trailer:

If you hadn’t guessed, here on THiNC. I make friends with individuals like yourself, and I love talking, in detail, with you guys about the ins and outs of these crazy movies. Which means, I just verbally vomit up in brilliant Technicolor all the spoilers you can image. So if you haven’t seen this movie, you are going to ruin this movie for yourself. Ok? Fair? Great.

Detailed Walkthrough of The Ritual

Enter Luke (Rafe Spall, who did fantastic in The Big Short), Hutch (Robert James-Collier – who you know from Downton Abbey), Phil (Arsher Ali), Dom (Sam Troughton), and Robert (Paul Reid) – five buddies, that carry the weight and the easiness from a lifetime of friendship. The conversations and the inside jokes are all there. And the viewing audiences stands on the outside of this close knit group. Well, during an evening of planning for an apparently fairly regular guy’s time out, they decide (some more reluctantly than others) that they are going to hike the woods of Northern Sweden. Uh, Ok. Can’t knock that as a choice, being from Colorado myself.  But Northern Sweden? Don’t your spidey senses just go nuts? Nordic gods anyone? Loki? Gah.

But even before they get there, Luke and Robert, head into a liquor store together and a terribly tragedy occurs. The liquor store they chose was in the midst of a robbery, and Luke finds himself hiding behind an end-cap, and Robert? He finds himself dead. Unfortunately. But even worse? Luke is riddled with guilt, having done nothing to protect his friend. And if you were wondering what this movie REALLY is all about? It’s 100% about Luke’s demasculization, his complete yielding of his pride and his respect, both with his friends, but also with himself. But just wait, you’ll see, we’ll get to that in time.

Cut to – the woods, and the guys time out together. They didn’t cancel. In fact, they decided to make it into a memorial for their friend. To build up a shibboleth, a standing stone, whatever the heck you’d call it (this just in, CY my fantastic editor for the site, who is working her way through every single piece of movie content I have ever created, has just informed me that it’s a Cairn. Thanks all of you who haven’t lent a hand, like at all! hahaha.)… and drink to his memory. And as they head off further into the mountains someone declares, “These mountains were smashed out by Nordic gods with big bastard hammers.” Which, if that isn’t foreshadowing, I literally do not know what it is.

The Downward Spiral of The Ritual

Soon, Dom twists his ankle and suddenly the couple miles left in the days journey look like an eternity. So what do they do? They break rule number one of horror movies, they decide to take a short cut through the forest. Yes, you are correct. They basically all die as a result. And soon they begin realizing this is true too, because glyphs start appearing on trees as they go. And then they run across a gutted and splayed elk spread between two trees. Yeah… foreboding. But then the rain comes down torrentially and now they are in a real right mess. But, THANKFULLY, they spot a cabin and decide to take shelter there.

Now, I’ve got two different friends that get to this point and just pass on the rest of the movie. Yeah, that was a fun ride Taylor. Thanks for the recommendation. No, thanks. Hahaha. Which, I totally get. Fair enough. Because this is where the movie starts its serious downward spiral.

Inside, the guys find a totem without a head, and antlers for hands. Hrm. Ok. Weird cabin. And so they get some much needed sleep and that’s when serious crazy begins. Because Luke? He’s back in the liquor store and he’s reliving the murder of his friend Robert. Only to wake with five bloody wounds in his chest. Which, apparently is a really big deal we’ll talk about later. Better yet though, he finds Hutch has peed himself in his sleep. Dom won’t wake from his dream, and he keeps yelling Gayle over and over again. And Phil is upstairs, naked, genuflecting towards the totem creature. Whoa.

They cut and run as quickly as they can. But soon, Dom is bringing up the incident at the liquor store, calling Luke a coward. That he should have done something to save their friend… but he didn’t. Which, really is the thing this movie is all about. Just so we are 100% clear.

A few minutes later, the group begins to believe they are never getting out of this forest alive. And a little bit later, Hutch turns up gutted and splayed in the trees like the elk at the entrance to the forest. He’s dead, and now this craziness is starting to get very very real to them. And a few minutes after that, they find Phil in a tree as well. And holy cow in a rodeo this movie escalates really really quickly. And no, no, I am not afraid… or scared completely witless. I’m perfectly fine at this point.

Next thing we know, Luke and Dom have been attacked and awake enchained and locked up in a cabin. And, after a series of increasingly scary craziness, it becomes clear to Luke that Dom is about to get sacrificed to something. And although he tries his best to intervene on Dom’s behalf, including breaking his thumb to get free, no dice, Dom is gone. And moments later Dom sees Gayle walking out of the woods and then morphing back to the god. And moments later Dom finds himself dead, gutted, and hanging from a tree.

One of the gods minions comes back into Luke and let’s him know what is going on. Basically the god that he saw disembowel Dom is one of the jötunn, and a bastard offspring of Loki. And the people that live in this village are ancient, and are kept alive just to worship it. And not only that, but the god has chosen Luke to be a member of their worship team, and that he can either chose to worship this demigod, or he can chose to hang from the trees.

And this is key, when he asks, “Why me?” She responds with, “Your pain is great.” A few minutes later, Luke is left alone and he breaks free from the room and punches the head woman in the face, and goes upstairs. Finds a chapel, and another totem figure, with pews full of old remains of individuals worshipping. And Luke lights them all on fire.

A Detailed Walk Through of the Ending of the Ritual

Now, there is some confusion out there around what exactly happens at the ending of the Ritual. But don’t worry… I am here to help you out! After fleeing the burning house, the jötunn attacks Luke and they dance a bit. And there’s some weird pantomiming that occurs that makes the interactions between the two extraordinarily confusing. Well, the Loki offspring, when he pushes Luke to the ground, it is saying that Luke must worship or he’ll die. He does it twice. And both times Luke gets back up. The final time, Luke gets a hit to the Jöunn’s face that allows Luke a minute to run, where he happens to escape out of the woods. And this, apparently is a boundary through which the jötunn can’t move through. Luke screams. Jötunn screams. Luke screams. Roll credits.

So, what is going on here? Well, remember when I told you it was literally a conversation piece about lost masculinity and lost pride?  Well, yeah. That’s what this scene is all about. What makes it even worse, is that Luke was hand selected by the jötunn to save as a flaccid worshipper for all eternity. He was chosen not because his pain was great, but because he would subjugate himself, he would cow easily. This is the proverbial insult to injury, not only did he stand by while one of his best friends dies, he also gets called out for being a hoser by some evil god of the woods. Worst. Case. Scenario.

Possible Explanations for The Ritual

So let’s talk about the ending and this movie and what it really might mean. In setting up this conversation, I ran across a great quote from Buckner about his movie:

“Yeah, I mean, there’s kind of the literal nightmares in the movie, and I think it’s almost like, well if that’s on the table, if we brought that up, then we maybe can suggest that there are different reads on the movie as a whole. At the beginning of the movie it’s like, somebody’s either waking up from a remembered nightmare, or they’re waking up into the nightmare, the bad dream that you have the night you have after the night something traumatic has taken place. You know, I think both are fun reads on the movie to kind of think about.” 

So with these different possible vantage point views of how the movie might look as we spin this particular prism, why don’t we start this off:

#1 The Literal Nightmare Theory of The Ritual

So let’s just take Buckner at his word, and break those specific permutations of his movie down and see if we can create a coherent construct around each one. The first being the literal nightmare. Every movie interpretation has a literal reading of the movie… well, every movie other than Donnie Darko that is. hahaha.

But the way this theory would work itself out is that a bad thing happened to these guys and then they had the misfortune of picking a holiday in the Norwegian Wood (Yes, I know they aren’t in Norway, it was a reference to the Beatles song (and the PM Dawn remake, thank you very much.) take a deep breath.) and stumbled upon an evil god in the forest. Exeunt. It is what it is. There isn’t much to say here.

#2 The Remembered Nightmare Theory of The Ritual

The remembered nightmare is just a more complex way of saying, Luke is reliving the horror of the killing of his friend. It’s just a new manifestation of this same event playing out in front of his eyes again, in different and new ways. This is going to be the most obvious and easy to defend of the theories.

Is there a demigod intent on his destruction? No. Is there a village hell-bent on turning him into a minion, enslaved to worship the jötunn for all eternity? No. But this is a psychological battle in Luke’s mind being played out for his soul none the less. Assume he’s tripped out and in an insane asylum if you want. Assume he’s dreaming. It doesn’t matter. The bottom line to the Remembered Nightmare is that he’s reliving the events of the worst night of his life and everything that you are seeing is just a manifestation of that reality.

#3 The Waking Nightmare Theory of The Ritual

#3 and #2 are similar ideas in the same vein. Instead of a hallucinatory manifestation of the nightmare, he is having waking dreams, waking nightmares of the remembered events. So how this would play out is pretty specific, Robert is killed. Then they go hiking, and like a LSD trip come back to haunt him, it begins bubbling to the surface in waking memories of the events. So mid-hike, the liquor store literally permeates everything. Maybe no one dies. Maybe there is no village, maybe there is nothing that connotes the insanity we see on the screen. And post hike, I’m betting his friends find him and have him admitted. hahaha.

In defense of this theory I submit to you a later quote from Buckner during that interview that continues with: “the hope is that if the movie continues, that we obscure the lines between those things more and more and more until, what’s understood to be real and what’s understood to be surreal are sort of blended together; it’s never really clear.”

#4 The Mythic Vantage of The Ritual

Let’s right turn for a moment now. What if we aren’t just watching the literal movie play out, but let’s look at it from the other way round. What if demigods were real. Not the Marvel, DC versions of the gods… but the mythic versions that are thousands of years old and are told and retold via oral tradition in the firelight of the camp.

“Loki (Old Norse [ˈloki], Modern Icelandic [ˈlɔːkɪ], often Anglicized as /ˈlki/) is a god in Norse mythology. Loki is in some sources the son of Fárbauti and Laufey, and the brother of Helblindi and Býleistr. By the jötunn Angrboða, Loki is the father of Hel, the wolf Fenrir, and the world serpent Jörmungandr. By his wife Sigyn, Loki is the father of Narfi and/or Nari. By the stallion Svaðilfari, Loki is the mother—giving birth in the form of a mare—to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir. In addition, Loki is referred to as the father of Váli in Prose Edda, though this source also refers to Odin as the father of Váli twice, and Váli is found mentioned as a Son of Loki only once.”

That quote is from Wikipedia discussing Loki and his offspring. What if these mythic gods were legitimate and real, and our poor Luke doesn’t step into a set of The Village, but a real life village where these gods are expected to be worshipped. And can I just say, while we are here, that this jötunn is completely out of control cool? Cause holy cow.

#5 The Masculinity Crisis Vantage of The Ritual 

Now, better than theory 1 through 4, is a discussion of this masculinity crisis we see playing out across these 100 minutes. Because, like I said before, no matter what theory you pick, this is what the movie is about. It could be a dream. It could be a waking nightmare. It could be “real”. Doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day it’s really all about Luke’s failure for his friend and what that means for him personally.

“We had to kind of literalize not just how it looks, but how it chooses to present. Because the idea of these kinds of shape-shifting Norse gods is that they can kind of choose how they want to look to you. So, what you’re seeing is how it desires to be interpreted, and it’s part of the way it intimidates and controls.”

So for Dom, this jötunn manifests as his wife Gayle before he’s killed. And for Luke? The jötunn chooses to manifest in its full glory. All 16 feet of its utter angriness. Why? Well, because it innately knew about Luke that he was cowardly, and easily cowed. And so it does just that.

But here’s a critical piece of this theory – jump back to the beginning of the film. These five guys are snipping at each other and bad mouthing each other as they have progressed, and their lives have taken strange turns. So we get this picture of these friends that were obviously inseparable. But then some have gotten married. Some have succeeded, while others have not. And they are just beginning to start heading down very different life paths. And for men this is extraordinarily significant. (I could write a doctoral dissertation on this topic I have so much first hand knowledge here.) And that plays a part in the progression and maturation of Luke towards the finish line of this movie.

This movie is innately about male loneliness… and about loss. All men lose friends at a pretty steady rate, and gaining new ones isn’t exactly the easiest thing (unless you have a cool movie discussion website and then you have ALL THE FRIENDS. hahah.) These guys are together, and yet they can’t relate to one another. Their roles, their positions, everything is changing. The group of friends, this shibboleth, was drifting. But at the end of the day, while this is fascinating backstory, it also talks about how we see this in juxtaposition to this honor among friends, and how we expect our friends to die for each other. To completely give everything to protect each other. And Luke did not do that.

But at the end of the day, Luke, though his friends were dead, and he was alone, still proved to both himself and to this demon, that he wasn’t going to bow. He was not going fail again.

Final Conclusions on The Ritual

I generally speaking, don’t totally dig horror movies. They generally aren’t my thing. But I really enjoyed this one because there was a lot more going on under the surface than your average Freddie Krueger film. The writing was phenomenal in that it captured the reality of life amongst a group of friends t-boned by loss. The action was intense. And it wasn’t a tease. Holy cow, is it rare that you get a movie where we see the monster and we aren’t completely and totally underwhelmed. But The Ritual pulled it off. I totally think the movie held together beginning to end.

I don’t know, what theory do you ascribe to? How do you think this thing went down?

Edited by, CY

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